Growing Pains and Political Corruption


The first elevator shaft was built into the Cooper Union building, in the East Village, in 1853, before the first passenger elevator had been invented. Thomas Edison installed light bulbs in private homes for the first time, in Manhattan, in the 1880s. And the first electricity generating plant ever built lit up Manhattan in 1882.

Despite this history as a center of innovation, lately it may seem like New York City has become risk-averse and, as a result, is experiencing excruciating growing pains during the late dawning of the 21st century.

The truth, however, is not that our neighbors in this amazing city, who each day revel in the privilege of living at the center of the world, object. In fact, polls and shopping trends show that the majority of New Yorkers embrace the future.

Sadly, it’s the small minds and corrupt practices of the dimmest and least-creative among us, who, having limited options, end up on the New York City Council, where they think they can freeze time and stop progress.

And they’re not even embarrassed about it.

Long gone are the days of Council members who were the kind of New Yorkers who read The Power Broker and everything else Robert Caro has ever written and had — wait for it — original ideas.

As an intern reporter at The Village Voice, I learned a lot just sitting with Councilmember Ruth Messinger of the Upper West Side, in the council lounge, as she opened her own mail. After 20 years in local politics, Messinger moved on to the American World Jewish Service, where she launched campaigns to end the genocide in Darfur and reform international food aid.

Today, we have councilmembers, from Speaker Corey Johnson to public advocate candidate Rafael Espinal, who brag in newspaper and magazine profiles about their weekends spent dancing until dawn and sleeping in like teenagers.

Meanwhile, the Council lounge is now closed to the public. After decades as a site of public discourse, it’s become a place where council members meet privately with lobbyists. And instead of going on to run global campaigns for justice, the best jobs most of this class of council members are likely to land are as DJs at after-hours clubs in Bushwick.

It’s their reactions to innovation that might lead observers to think that New York City has become averse to creativity and progress. But it’s really just Political Corruption 101.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was created in 1971 to regulate taxis and for-hire vehicles in the city. A taxi medallion was the equivalent of a permit. But as corporations and groups of investors started to buy up these medallions, they created a new market.

These investors controlled this new market by lobbying the TLC to limit the number of medallions it permitted on city streets — even as the city’s population and the demand for taxis and for-hire vehicles grew exponentially.

The TLC simply stopped serving the interests of city residents. Instead, its sole purpose became to serve the interests of investors in the artificial market it had created, where medallions are now worth as much as $1.3 million.

It’s as if the DMV had decided it was capping the number of driver’s licenses it would issue. To get a license, New Yorkers would have to buy one from the limited supply held by currently licensed drivers.

The City Council, whose members have raised millions of campaign dollars over the years from the investors and owners of tax fleets, has no problem with this setup.

Then some brilliant and creative minds from San Francisco brought Uber to New York.

New Yorkers, fed up with trying to hail a cab at rush hour, in the rain, or for a trip to an outer borough, embraced this new service, where with a mobile phone, you can call a clean cab to take you anywhere in the city — no matter what color you are!

All the complaints that New Yorkers have had for decades about yellow cabs vanished overnight — if you took an Uber.

In no time, Uber also created 61,000 jobs for all those new drivers.

New Yorkers were happy.

Then, amazingly, the TLC, which for decades failed to deal with the problems of dirty cabs, racist drivers, and cabs that refused to drive to the boroughs or north of 96th St., starting flexing its muscles — not to fix the problems with yellow cabs, but to crack down on Uber and then Lyft drivers, whom New Yorkers preferred over yellow cabs.

This is the kind of corruption you’d usually hear about in some small town. But it gets worse.

To back up the TLC, the medallion investors invested more than $100,000 in a

State senator from the poorest neighborhood in the city, where no taxicab had ever picked up or dropped off a passenger. He was running for the City Council.

Even the most cynical New Yorker would never think that this ploy would work in modern-day New York. In the days of Tammany Hall, maybe. But not in 2018.

But a man who was running for City Council speaker, who cannot stop talking about his being gay and HIV-positive, made a quid-pro-quo deal with the most homophobic politician in New York.

In exchange for homophobe Ruben Diaz Sr.’s vote for Council speaker, Corey Johnson agreed to create a new committee with oversight of for-hire vehicles — for Diaz to chair. So much for values.

Now, instead of taking a look at the overall transportation picture in New York City, these government institutions are working at the beck and call of investors to punish the innovators who are bringing city residents new services that they love.

They’ve even managed to sell the false narrative that the biggest problem in the city today is traffic in midtown Manhattan — and that it’s the fault of these new drivers. Somehow (they would have us believe), the problems of homelessness, hunger and childhood poverty are not as serious in the city as The New York Times has characterized them to be.

One thing that could help tackle these very real problems is an influx of jobs and tax revenue — like, say, through the Amazon deal just announced by the governor and the mayor. This deal will generate billions of dollars in revenue, which will go a long way to addressing the city’s current needs.

The City Council, which does most of its business behind closed doors, responded by whining that this deal was done “in secret.”

The truth is that there’s nothing in the deal for the individual members of the Council. No way to take credit. Or pad their campaign accounts with dollars for their next race. All they get out of it is what every other New Yorker will receive: jobs and billions in future tax revenue for the city.

The City Council needs to get its act together. Its job is not to keep the shades down to keep everyone in the dark, but to make sure that everyone can enjoy the light of the new dawn and grow in the sunshine.